Most people know by now that King Charles III really cares about the environment. It’s been repeated often in the months since the death of Queen Elizabeth II, especially by the people who admire him. What may be less known among the general public is exactly how respected among environmental advocates he really is.
This year, Charles reportedly canceled plans to attend COP27 in Egypt last week due to advice from Liz Truss’s short-lived administration, which was upheld by the new prime minister, but he did host a Buckingham Palace reception for over 200 politicians and activists who were on their way to Egypt. For Charles, trips to the United Nations Climate Change Conferences are about more than keeping up appearances—he actually participates. At 2015’s COP21 in Paris, where a landmark treaty was set to be negotiated, Charles used his opening remarks to remind the attendees to think of the world they were leaving their grandchildren. On his last trip to COP26 in Glasgow, Charles gave four separate speeches and introduced a video message from his mother.
One obvious reason for his passion for the environment is that he was simply in the right place at the right time. Historians have named 1970 as the year when threats to the environment broke through to the mainstream, and as a 22-year-old finishing up his university degree in anthropology and archeology and planning his career, the concern came naturally. For a handful of baby boomers, caring for the environment became a countercultural lifestyle, and though Charles was never a committed member of the Back-to-the-Land Movement, some of his beliefs and practices—from his organic farm at Highgrove to his concerns about GMOs—weren’t too far off.
Still, Charles remained unusually committed to environmental concerns even after the ’70s drew to a close, perhaps because it spoke to something deeper in him. Through speeches about the environment spanning five decades, he has described his interest in the environment in elemental terms, speaking of beauty, awareness, synthesis, and imagination. He has also been remarkably astute when it comes to incorporating new information and following the movement’s buzzwords. But engaging with his history in the movement also helps illustrate some of the pitfalls that have made action regarding the climate much harder to achieve.
The future king made his initial forays into environmental concerns long before global warming was even on the agenda. On a drab day in February 1970, Charles followed his father, Prince Philip, into a room at Strasbourg’s city hall for a conference about wildlife conservation. In a dark suit, looking younger than his 22 years, Charles sat in the audience as his father delivered a speech about resource depletion, endangered wildlife, and the need for more land to be set aside for conservation. These were the issues that Philip spent most of his life committed to, and they were fairly normal concerns for European royalty at the time. Charles and Philip were joined by four other European princes at the conference, which brought together government representatives and activists to launch the European Conservation Year.
By 1970, Charles had already been involved with the European Conservation Year planning for nearly two years. Many of Charles’s decisions about education and employment were planned by Queen Elizabeth II and her advisers, and his initial forays into the world of environmental activism were motivated by their desire for him to form closer connections in Wales. In 1968, Charles started preparing for his responsibilities as heir apparent by spending more time in the nation. First, he chaired a committee tasked with planning the nation’s participation in the upcoming European Conservation Year, his first time serving as the head of a meeting. The next year, he returned to take a summer course in the Welsh language before his lavish investiture in Caernarfon Castle in July 1969.
Charles’s 1970 trip to France was part of a larger plan to launch him into his career in public life. His university studies would come to an end that spring, so for the year following his investiture, he committed to a hectic travel schedule to serve as a royal apprentice before beginning his military training at the Royal Navy College, Dartmouth. After leaving the conference in Strasbourg, Charles traveled to Paris to attend the state funeral of French leader Charles de Gaulle.